Sunday, May 17, 2009

Fort Jefferson- The Ride Out

It was a funny moment, looking out the back window of the Yankee Freedom II and seeing Key West slide away astern. It was eight o'clock in the morning last Thursday and two hours earlier I had been closing up my twelve hour shift at police dispatch, now I was a tourist in my home town. Very cool.The round-trip ticket to the island 70 miles west of Key West costs $170 and includes the National park Service entrance fee. Passengers on the ferry are divided into two categories, the cool ones who are camping on the island, and the Rest. There are six spaces reserved for campers as the park service is careful not to overburden the wilderness experience on the 16 acre island called Garden Key, which is the main island in the chain that comprise the Dry Tortugas. Campers get to use carts to carry their belongings (up to 70 pounds in weight per person) from the unloading area in front of Turtle Kraals restaurant. Carol and Lucy bringing a cart down the dock at some ungodly hour, perhaps 6:30am:Camping supplies need to be loaded by 6:45am so when the day trippers show up to board at 7:30 they way is clear for them. Passengers have to stand in line to pick up the tickets which can be ordered... online:Then on the dock the captain gives a welcome speech laced with instructions on how to survive the three hour boat ride to Fort Jefferson. This involves forming another line:Then,once on board and settled in, the galley opens up and we formed a third line to get the breakfast which is included in the price of passage (as is one lunch on the return trip):The ferry leaves at 8:00am and cruises at 30 miles per hour (45km/h) arriving at the fort around 10:30 am, depending on sea conditions. It's a great ride but I was planning on sleeping after sitting up all night dispatching, so I loaded up with breakfast from the buffet:And couldn't compose myself for sleep. There were four women, including my wife on the ferry and they were having a grand time yukking it up:So I read for a bit then took off for a wander in the fresh sea air. The ship's historian Jack interrupted the relative silence with comments about the islands along the way and nautical and historic curiosities:He handed out a flier describing the fort and the various attributes:Which makes for a handy introduction if you've never seen the Civil War era fort before, and some passengers spent time perusing it:Passengers are also allowed to join the Captain on the bridge and watch the rather dreary business of holding the wheel and holding court:In this case the captain and the passenger had some common history in Colorado or someplace and they were busy chatting away while I looked out the window and got a captain's-eye view of the road ahead:There's not a huge lot to see between Key West and the Dry Tortugas, you might think, but there were a few points of interest. Alongside us drove the other ferry, Fast Cat operated by Sunny Days which was carrying Robert and Dolly as there wasn't space for them, as campers, on our boat. Fast Cat is seen here passing across the top of the Marquesas Keys about half way to the fort.Subsequently they snagged a fishing line and had to pause to cut it off the propeller, according to Dolly. She also asked me to point out that breakfast on their boat was a rather measly box of Publix donuts handed around compared to the regal buffet we got...We also crossed paths with a Park Service supply ship, Ft Jefferson, which according to Jack makes regular runs twice a week between the park and Key West:Jack also pointed out these 250 foot (80 meter) tall antennae sticking up out of the Gulf of Mexico. I've seen them strung out in a line south of Cape Sable, and apparently they used to serve as military radio beacons for aircraft until the advent of GPS. Jack got a bit drowned out at this point but I think he said they now use them to track missiles and possibly satellites or something.For the rest, we stared out at the water as it rushed by:Or not:And then in the fullness of time a narrow white strip appeared on the horizon, the first land since the Marquesas mangroves some 30 miles to the east of us. It was just a sand bar, but it was inside the yellow buoy, one of a ring surrounding these islands that mark the boundary of the national park:That would make it East Key, followed shortly thereafter by another strip of white sand, this time Hospital Key, where sick soldiers from the fort would be quarantined in tents, in misery:But all eyes were on the main prize which had slowly risen out of the ocean like an apartment complex, rectangular and solid and completely out of place in the middle of the ocean:One woman started squealing in delight and felt compelled to apologize for her display. We the Key West campers started laughing but apparently her husband wasn't amused by her reckless enthusiasm.I thought she might do better with her outgoing personality living in Key West instead of Tampa, and she could probably lose the angry husband too, but in keeping with my new policy of being nice to strangers I said nothing. I looked at the fort which never changes with each visit but remains fascinating and desirable each time it comes over the horizon:I've taken day trips to the fort and I've sailed there on my own boat several times but this was my first time camping and I was wondering how this experience was going to work out. It was going to be put it to the test pretty soon:There are a limited number of campsites at the fort, with a few highly undesirable "overflow" sites set out in the open ground with no shade or beauty around them. Thus campers tend to want to scamper off the boat and snag the "best" spots in a mad dash. To prevent this we were banished upstairs while the Rest (the day trippers) got to crowd the exit. Which was funny because we five were the only campers on the boat...but we got the arrival lecture form the ranger:Which he rather decently cut short when he realised we were led by experienced campers in the form of Carol and Lucy. For some reason there is an extremely pointless rule that doesn't allow propane or butane stoves on the ferry. Doubtless they haven't heard that people all over the world travel in complete safety with these highly dangerous fuels...which leaves campers with two rather poor substitutes for cooking, solid fuel stoves ("sterno") or self lighting charcoal, as lighter fluid is very much not allowed either. Which makes the production of a simple cup of coffee a protracted and irritating business. Nevertheless the ferry ride itself is a highly enjoyable part of the Fort Jefferson experience as a whole. And then there are more carts at the ferry terminal on the island to get the heap of crap from the boat to the chosen campsite:It was a beautiful day at the dock, not humid but warm, windy and the waters were sparkling in the harbor in front of the fort:But we had no time to stand around and contemplate nature; we had work to do.